Tuesday, December 31

Misogynist Authors and Other Problems



I've noticed some interesting conversations about reading misogynist authors cropping up lately and have an opinion. But first, an anecdote.

In my last semester of undergrad I signed up for English Lit Since 1900 from Dr. Singh and was terrified. She had a reputation for being extremely difficult, and after the first class meeting I knew why: the class would not be taught as a normal breadth literature course. Dr. Singh wasn't interested in teaching the canon; she did select authors who were considered canonical, but with a twist - George Orwell, but Orwell in Burma, D.H. Lawrence, but Lawrence in America, and texts none of us had ever heard of, texts written by African authors who immigrated to England, English authors who wrote about Asia, Irish authors, queer authors. Additionally Dr. Singh liked problems, she liked to expose them and to create them. When we read Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot she made sure to tell us about how they were misogynists and antisemitic and fascists. The class was not created with the canon in mind - the class was created with trouble in mind.
By the end of the semester I found my first day jitters were unjust. Dr. Singh was very smart, so she was intimidating, but her terrifying reputation was inaccurate. She was a sweet, lovely woman just as prone to wistfulness as she was trouble. We read Yeats outside on a spring day and she sighed and said she wished everyone read Yeats on St. Patrick's Day instead of getting drunk; I thought that was so lovely and have tried to read a little Yeats every St. Patrick's Day since. I loved her class and I liked her; she was difficult, but in the best way, the way teachers should be: she was challenging. I learned things I couldn't have learned in a standard canonical survey of British literature and I was thankful for that. The reason she had her reputation, however, is because many students are not thankful for teachers who decide to teach like she did. 
The expectation of a literature survey course is that you're taught the canon. Students want and expect it because we're all taught from a very young age that canonical writers like Shakespeare and Hemingway and Homer are more valuable than other writers, that if we're not reading the classics we're not getting our money's worth, we're not receiving a complete education, as though our education can be considered whole and complete so long as we read all of the classics, as if our education can ever be whole and complete.

If these canonical authors are problematic in some way, the people who question the artist or his art (like Dr. Singh) are often shut down or deemed problematic themselves because questions undermine the canon, and so also undermine a lot of what and how we're taught to read, write, even think. I had a Chaucer professor who constantly defended the anti-Semitism in The Canterbury Tales as ~just the way it was~ (so totally harmless and worth disregarding?) without any kind of critical thought, and "Benito Cereno" is often offensive to students, but they are assured that it's a critique of slavery even though it really just seems like it's a critique of black people. Discussions of problems in texts are not allowed because they undermine the value of the work, and discussions of the problems of the authors are not allowed because they do the same. The value of the work cannot be undermined because it then undermines the entire system. If Shakespeare is sexist then how come we're taught Shakespeare from age 13, and how come he's considered the greatest writer of all time, and how come you don't teach us things that aren't sexist? Why do you teach us what you teach us in the first place? What exactly are you trying to put in my head and who exactly is it going to benefit? Do you see where I'm going with this?
Of course the problem with these texts isn't that we read them, but that they're considered canonical and important by scholars, and so are considered more important than their non-white, non-male, non-straight peers. This may not seem like a big deal to people who don't study literature - so what do I care, I read the books I want to read and not what's privileged by assholes in tweed in their ivory towers - you think. But the canon is what our kids are taught in highschool and middle school, and the canon is what they are told to value. That extends well beyond classrooms and colleges. This is the cerulean speech from The Devil Wears Prada - this stuff is chosen, is selected and then trickles out into the world because it was selected to do so. What academics and critics find important and canonical becomes important and canonical in the real world, which is why when I was a preteen I desperately bought up and trudged through classics, which is why everyone has some classical piece of crap on their bookshelf collecting dust (Mine is Anna Karenina - why did I buy this? I've never even opened it! This is why. Because it was in a movie I saw when I was 12.), which is why every year new, fancy editions of classics are reprinted with lots of fanfare, which is why things like cartoons, stoner movies and comic strips can make Shakespeare jokes and it's effective, etc. Take a look at those books, guys - those books are overwhelmingly written by white men, and those white men are overwhelmingly assholes. There is a larger force at work here telling us what is and is not valuable literature and who is and who is not a valuable author and that so many of us have blithely accepted these values without question is the real problem.

This larger force (which is not a monolith, is not a singular person or even a school of thought, is rather an institution the way that sexism and racism are) privileges writers who may be misogynists and racists and terrible people in and outside of their writing and doesn't question it. So when discussions come up that do question the value of their work or their characters, it's simply not enough to say "Well don't read them." You have to know that's like telling someone who's uncomfortable at their job because of their gender or race or sexuality to just get another job. It's not a real solution, but rather a flippant brushing aside of the actual problem. 

The problem has nothing to do with what's on our measly little bookshelves at home, it has nothing to do with us enjoying writing by problematic people. If you need to soul search about enjoying Twilight then soul search; I know that whatever answer you come up with is the right one - at least you're allowing yourself the opportunity to ask questions and think critically about your tastes. What I'm trying to illustrate is that the real problem is that these discussions are being shut down before they start getting to the bigger picture. What does it mean that these authors are privileged over others? What are we being taught to value? And why, in 2013, are we being taught to value these things over others when there is so much more out there? I don't know the answers to these questions or the way to solve these problems, but I'm also not interested in simply brushing them off. I am thankful for people like Dr. Singh who are willing to stick their necks out to complicate their classrooms, and I hope that when I'm a teacher I can do the same. 

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